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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow

Safe Harboring

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

As a group, independent day schools distinguished themselves this spring and summer by attending to the emotional needs of their communities, by pivoting thoughtfully to remote instruction, and by carrying out transparent, inclusive planning processes for the fall. Many public schools had similar successes, but some imploded, providing students last spring with spotty review activities at best and little institutional commitment to their social and emotional well-being, and then compounded that unhappiness with poorly designed processes for fall plans. As a result, parents who had lost confidence in their children's school and for whom remote schooling posed impossible work/home life conflicts began to aggressively explore educational alternatives for their children for the 2020 - 2021 school year. Fear of the pandemic exploding in dense major cities also set in motion a smaller but significant number of families from all kinds of schools. Many of these families arrived in independent school admission offices throughout the summer, often in the late going as public schools announced remote re-openings while many independent schools started with hybrid or fully in person learning.

I've spent the last two weeks talking with heads and directors of admission at independent schools around the country and with the executive directors of several regional independent school associations to try to understand this phenomenon and to hear how schools planned to retain these "safe-harboring" families who may be more lightly committed to a long term relationship with the school.

I decided at the outset to exclude juggernaut schools, that small group of schools across the country with deep waiting lists and profound resources. The pandemic traumatized these school communities as well but didn't threaten the schools' bottom lines or futures. Many pundits predict that the pandemic has accelerated an overdue revolution in education in the US, but it's a revolution that won't be televised at Harvard or Harvard-Westlake quite yet. Rather, I was interested in the schools that fight hard to hit budgeted enrollment each year. The feedback I received grouped the schools into three points along an enrollment continuum.

  • Schools where the summertime surge helped them meet or exceed budgeted enrollment. These schools often existed in the top echelon of solid markets and had the human resources not only to create effective remote strategies last spring but also to market them. Some are situated in high quality of life locales, like Lake Tahoe, where the pandemic accelerated traffic along a path that Bay Area families had already worn smooth. Some schools profited from being proximate to cities, the Hamptons, yes, but also South Bend, equidistant to Chicago and to the Lake Michigan summer homes of some Chicagoans. Several schools in cities like Seattle, Dallas, and Houston with their suburban elbow room and steady influx of young professionals reported families making permanent moves from New York and Los Angeles. As a result, these schools filled spot attrition throughout the grade levels or bolstered upper grade levels to make up for soft early childhood enrollment, an almost universal phenomenon across the categories. Although the end of the story was gratifying, many of these heads described wild times in July and August. A Florida head told me that over 50% of the new families at his school had enrolled in July and August.

  • Schools where summertime enrollments helped mitigate but not resolve attrition. This was the largest group: schools in super-saturated markets, elementary schools reliant on big early childhood programs, schools in cities with slow economies or weak corporate diversity or declining populations. There was an interesting sub-group of these schools where space and/or hybrid schedules forced them to turn away prospective students, a heartbreaker. At all of these schools, safe-harboring enrollments filled a greater need and their potential ephemerality poses an even greater risk. Two heads from Chicago and Detroit told me they were eager to retain safe-harboring families but were working just as hard to bring back deferring continuing families and to keep this year's admitted/not enrolled families engaged in spots for 2021-2022.

  • Schools that experienced an increase in inquiries but translated few of them to enrollments. These schools were chronically under-enrolled before the pandemic, often in small markets where independent education is little known, or new niche players in larger markets whose early buzz was drown out by the klaxon of pandemic fear. The handful of new summer enrollments kept the doors open through the pandemic year, but the specter of dissolution remained real. According to the Cato Institute, nine independent schools closed this summer. Some experts predict that over 100 more could close in the next several years, a rate very similar to the predicted closure of American colleges and universities.

I was also interested in the challenges that schools anticipated in retaining these families. Directors of enrollment were clear that they faced a few challenges peculiar to safe-harboring families, but the biggest challenges were the typical ones compounded by a very short timeline:

  • Finances: Some safe-harboring families had dipped into savings to make a year of independent school happen. Others were taking advantage of a silver lining by re-deploying discretionary income rendered unusable by the pandemic. That is, for this year, tuition at an independent school didn't feel so steep once they'd subtracted what they weren't spending on ski vacations, Disney trips, a replacement for the mini-van that mostly sat in the driveway lately. As these families thought about next year, however, those temporarily suspended sacrifices would become real.

  • Culture: Helping lightly committed families face the typical cultural challenges of moving to an independent school was by far the greatest challenge according to directors of enrollment. As one director of enrollment told me, for the family of a seventh and fourth grader, the move to an independent school amounted to a crisis of identity, as they shifted away from over a decade of engagement with their neighborhood schools and friends. This made it even harder to bear the common disappointments that many new students encounter: the honors student who finds himself in the middle of the pack at his new school, the child who struggles to make new friends, the parents who didn't accurately predict the impact of the financial sacrifice they made. The expectation setting, celebrating, troubleshooting work that schools do with new families is complex, time-consuming and deeply particular to each family.

  • Time: Traditional new families start with a much longer horizon, 14 years distant for the family of a four year old at a preK-12 school, with the first re-enrollment contract due date as the first milestone along that journey. For safe-harboring families, on the other hand, this year's re-enrollment contract due date is both milestone and horizon.

  • Access: Every director of enrollment I spoke to despaired over and was bravely working hard to overcome the problem of access to parents. Almost all schools were not allowing parents on campus and had translated large-gathering school events to remote formats thereby eliminating the daily, auspicious moments that administrators on the retention team use to connect with families.

Last, I asked heads and directors of enrollment to describe their retention plans for safe-harboring families. My timing was ideal as many heads and directors of enrollment told me that this had recently risen to the top of the to do list. Almost all felt behind but had extended themselves enough grace to recognize that they had only recently emerged from the extraordinary work of the last several months into something that felt a little like a rhythm. Many mentioned that the imminence of parent teacher conferences had kick started the retention conversation as had the information gathering phase of budget planning for 2021 - 2022. These were the key elements of the plans I heard:

  • Personalized: Directors of enrollment were working closely with division directors and teachers to create person-to-person communication pathways with each family. They talked a lot about getting on the phone with these families--not email, text, and definitely not a survey--and about helping everyone on the team set their radar sensibilities for first inklings of trouble or success.

  • Eyes and ears: Without daily opportunities for parents to encounter the school's program and their children in action, directors of enrollment saw an even greater role for them and their colleagues to play in relaying to parents very specific, proactive news and updates: I know Erin had a tearful goodbye with you this morning, so I thought I'd call to let you know that when I joined her class for morning meeting, she was excitedly describing her apple picking adventure from the weekend.

  • Heads: The head's direct engagement in retention work has been a growing part of the independent school conversation for the last 10 years. Directors of enrollment see the pandemic as an opportunity to press the accelerator hard on that effort. It is enormously reassuring and gratifying for all parents, and particularly new parents, to know that the CEO of the institution knows and cares about their family.

  • Full court press: This was the laundry list of efforts they make every year for new families, just pushed into hyper-drive: Get kids and families connected with what they need, quickly; show them what the school can do. Double down on internal marketing, particularly visuals. Work with the director of development to craft a customized annual giving strategy. Get them socially connected, host families, parent council activities. Build into an existing admin agenda a regular retention review that drives clear action plans.

  • Retention of the Not-Enrolled: This effort, top of mind for schools that had not met enrollment numbers, should be on everyone's to-do list. Attrition among safe harboring families as a group will be higher than the school average, so even schools that met budgeted enrollment, and particularly those for whom late enrollments represented a large percentage of all new enrollments should communicate regularly with deferring continuing families and families who were admitted last year but chose not to enroll because of COVID concerns. Get them on distribution lists--weekly newsletter, special events, arts and athletics, etc.--invite them to socially-distanced school events.

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Oct 16, 2020

I know "unprecedented" gets thrown around a lot, but this really is an unprecedented challenge AND opportunity for independent schools. The retention programs that are implemented or bolstered now will be a huge asset to schools long-term.

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